Little Miss Sunshine

As I watched Little Miss Sunshine (IMDB), this year’s Sundance-endorsed dysfunctional-family road-trip indie (and, yes, I think that’s officially a genre now), I felt as if I’d seen something so carefully calculated to appeal to its indie audience that I couldn’t really buy into the genuinely interesting, humorous, and sometimes genuinely tender moments offered by the film. Even the film’s impliict “messages,” that all families are dysfunctional and that it’s okay not to be perfect seemed ripped from the pages of previous Sundance-ready scripts. The road-trip in question is a 700-mile journey from Albequerque to Redondo Beach so that seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) can compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. Olive’s family includes Richard (Greg Kinnear), a wanna-be motivational speaker waiting for his big break, Sheryl (Toni Collette), his wife who works to supprt the family, Dwayne (Paul Dano), the sullen Nitzsche reading son, Frank (Steve Carrell), Sheryl’s sucidal brother who also happens to be America’s “foremost Proust scholar,” and of course the foul-mouthed, heroin-snorting Grandpa (Alan Arkin).

Even with their quirks (and across-the-board solid performances), the characters seemed more like types than clearly-defined personalities, particularly Arkin’s grandpa gone wild. And the obstacles on their 700-mile journey, taken in a quirky VW van naturally, were utterly predictable (including at least two that reminded me of a Chevy Chase movie). The VW van’s broken clutch does provide an excuse for one of the film’s funnier motifs, the image of the family pushing and running alongside the van to get it started, with each family member running and leaping mock heroically into the open door. And once the family arrives at the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, the satire of child beauty pageants seemed a bit thin (although the arrest of a suspect in the Jon Benet Ramsey case gave these scenes a strange timeliness). Of course, as the pageant unfolds and the family worries that Olive will be humiliated when she performs in the talent competition, the film’s best, and most sentimental, surprise comes into play. But even as I watched this scene, I couldn’t help but feel that LMS was being cloying, as if disliking the film is tantamount to rejecting Olive’s pluckiness and spirit, and in several of these scenes, I could have easily been pulled closer to a more affirmative reading along the lines of Stephanie Zacharek’s.

Again, I feel as if I’m being unnecessarily harsh on LMS, but the film seems to illustrate much of what I find distressing (or at least remarkably uninteresting) about Indie Film today, which I want to distinguish from truly independent film, but as Jim Ridley’s Village Voice review implies, the film seems to embrace some of the worst excesses of recent indie film (although I disagree with him completely about Me and You and Everyone We Know falling into this category). At least the filmmakers had the good taste to include two Sufjan Stevens songs on the soundtrack.


  1. profgrrrrrl Said,

    August 26, 2006 @ 10:29 pm

    I didn’t love the film as much as everyone said I would … but I have to say that I thought the van’s horn was the true star of the film.

  2. Chuck Said,

    August 27, 2006 @ 10:25 am

    Yeah, the van horn was definitely one of the better gags.

  3. Seb Said,

    August 27, 2006 @ 8:28 pm

    I really enjoyed this movie. Yet, in reading your post, I find myself agreeing with a lot of your points(although I can’t call myself a connoisseur of current indie film trends!). The movie was certainly trying really hard to be a certain way, to fit a certain mold, trying really hard to be ‘quirky.’ Fortunately I didn’t find it too disracting for my viewing.

  4. Chuck Said,

    August 27, 2006 @ 8:57 pm

    Seb, I’ve been thinking about my reaction to LMS all weekend, and maybe instead of faulting the film for conforming to what might be called the Sundance-endorsed dysfunctional-family indie genre, it might make more sense to ask why that genre has become such a staple of contemporary cinema. It’s probably too easy to attribute the popularity of the genre to some kind of cultural zeitgeist argument, but much of the film did seem too familiar.

    I did enjoy LMS while I was watching it, and Kinnear, Arkin, Collette, and Dano were all engaging, but I’m still convinced that the indie aesthetic could be used in far more interesting ways.

  5. Matt Said,

    August 27, 2006 @ 11:25 pm

    I think you’re exactly right to be pointing towards quirky character types as a major defining feature of the “Sundance-endorsed dysfunctional-family indie genre.” I haven’t seen LMS yet, but I can say that the strain of conformity you saw in it is exactly what made me stop watching Napolean Dynomite partway through (though I’m thinking of giving it another try, since so many people seem to love the film).

    As noted in your Independent film post, there are a host of financial and aesthetic ways to define independent film. But perhaps another way to think about it is that a truly independent film is independent of audience expectations, too, in the sense that it does not adhere to the market-induced imperative to deliver easy pleasure. Both your review and Jim Ridley’s piece make it seem as if LMS is a movie that aims to please, even at the cost of its own narrative coherence.

    And that makes it not just a bad indie film, but a bad film, period.

  6. Chuck Said,

    August 28, 2006 @ 6:13 pm

    Matt, I was a little more patient with Napoleon Dynamite the first time I saw it but it didn’t hold up quite as well on second and third viewings. But I’ve been rethinking the marketing of quirk this afternoon due to Joanne Laurier’s World Socialist Website review. Her reading is far more generous than mine, specifically her observations about the middle class family’s struggles to stay afloat financially in the face of medical expenses, etc. There may be something valuable about identifying with the “losers” in this particular family.

  7. mark silverman Said,

    August 30, 2006 @ 2:13 am

    Let’s face it, “Little Miss Sunshine” is quirky, but does the film have to try and prove it with every damn scene? The movie is basically sweet and pleasent. It’s hard to not feel for little Olive and share her fresh excitment about life.

    The trouble with the film is it thinks it’s a lot funnier than it is. Did we really need the scene where Olive’s dad borrows a motercycle and helmet from a biker? The scene played like a bad episode of “The Lucy Show” or something. Coudn’t he just take a cab? Of course not, cabs aren’t quirky! He could have maybe hitched a ride with some Mexican workers and sat in the back of the truck with dozens of chickens. That’s nice and quirky. I don’t want too sound like a grouch or anything but the movie was hard to swallow at times. The weird son who hasn’t spoke a single word in 9 months was too silly. And a grandpa that likes porn!! How outragous! An old guy that likes porn! This leads to a scene with a policeman that is so dumb I don’t even want to go into it.

    The film has some nice moments though. Little Olive asking a buety pagent winner if she eats ice cream was a really nice scene. It really was. You would have to be a real grouch to not find the ending funny. It’s played out a little too big, but I am not going to fault the movie on that one. The scene is very funny and I wouldn’t be surprised if that little actress who plays Olive gets a supporting actress nomination for that scene alone. You heard it hear first. The ending actually seems a little too much like the ending of “About a Boy”, a more real and better movie. Well, I have said enough.

  8. Chris Said,

    August 30, 2006 @ 10:29 am

    mark makes some good points — i did find that scene with the cop gratingly stupid, and i had forgotten about the similarity with the ending of “about a boy.” wow — that one is hard to fathom — how could they end it so similarly?

  9. Chuck Said,

    August 30, 2006 @ 12:00 pm

    Yeah, the cop scene was really bad, and the similarity to About a Boy is now pretty striking. The bike scene could have been interesting if we had seen Kinnear actually ask the bikers, to see what he had to do to persuade them.

    I liked the interaction with the beauty queen as well (and like you I wouldn’t be surprised if Abigail Breslin gets nominated for an Oscar).

  10. Writer Chick Said,

    January 22, 2007 @ 2:01 am

    I am probably the last person to see this movie; therefore, you probably won’t even read these comments…however, I’m going to make them regardless.

    I really liked the movie, but also found it very derivative (I totally see the “Vacation” rip-offs Chuck eluded to) and cloying in parts. Overall, I was left with a good impression, found it refreshingly honest, and really enjoyed Abigail Breslin’s performance.

    I don’t see the big hoo-ha about Toni Collette’s performance, though…I mean, she was the glue that held the family together–the “sane” one, the “straight man” if you will, but I didn’t find her performance outstanding. I think her Golden Globe nod (and other award buzz) has been for a body of many good performances, and they’ve just finally decided to honor her. I think if they should nominate anyone from the LMS cast, it should be Abigail Breslin or Steve Carell for supporting roles.

    I do see many similarities between LMS and “About a Boy,” but I don’t get how you find the endings so similar. I don’t see that, except that the endings were both charming, upbeat and included the whole ensemble cast having a good time. (Oh, and both included Toni Collette.) Am I missing something?

    Also, unless you are a parent/head of a multi-kid, middle class household, it’s probably hard to see how realistic parts of this movie actually are. I am, and I identify with it a lot, though some characters are stereotyped and the movie definitely has some flaws.

    I’ve seen criticisms about Dwayne’s chosen muteness being silly–well, I had a friend in college who actually did keep a vow of silence for about 6 weeks I think. The 9 months Dwayne supposedly kept it seems a little far-fetched, but intelligent, idealistic, out-of-the-box-thinking young people actually do this stuff! The van horn thing actually happened to me, too, but for a different reason. I had to take my old Volvo to get a dime my son stuck in the horn out…the horn would go off at the most inopportune times and believe me, in my large, urban setting I was quite afraid I’d be shot!

    I think that Grandpa’s death being sudden–an OD at that–and the realistic way that the admin at the hospital treated the family (I’ve experienced this type of insensitive, abhorrent behavior in a medical setting more than once) kept the film from being too ingratiating to its audience. That dose of sadness and verisimilitude made it work for me and made up for the cloying moments, (I agree) truly horrible cop scene and superfluous Kinnear bike scene.

    The “Olive meets Miss California” moment and the ending make the movie worth watching, regardless of its faults. Overall, I found it a lot easier to watch than another dark, dysfunctional family comedy–The Royal Tenenbaums. At least I relate to LMS!! I felt the way Matt felt about Napoleon Dynamite with Royal Tenenbaums. And by the way, I’m NOT going to try to watch the rest of TRT, no matter HOW many people like it! 🙂

  11. Chuck Said,

    January 22, 2007 @ 9:17 am

    In terms of teh similarity of the endings, Hugh Grant’s character “rescues” the son on-stage when he sings “Killing Me Softly” during the talent show in the same way that Greg Kinnear and fam rescuse Abigal Breslin.

    The movie is growing on me in retrospect, and I think my comments were probably in part a response to the film’s being overhyped and to what I saw as a limitation on definitions of what I saw as growing trend in the Sundance-indie scene. I actually liked TRT quite a bit, probably in part because I happened to get a chance to see it more than once.

    Interesting comments.

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